For the ancient Greeks, gaming was more than just a way to pass the time. Dr Stavros Paspalas gives an in-depth look at board games in this public lecture
In the ancient Greek world board games were not always simply board games. Through a mythological lens such apparently simple and pedestrian daily pursuits could be elevated to the heroic realm where questions of Fate, life, and death could be examined, and examples for correct social behaviour could be established. An array of iconographic, literary and artefactual evidence exists from the ancient world that allows us to gain a deeper understanding of what board games may have meant, both in life and death, to the people of the ancient Greek world.
Board games were a pastime, but the ancients also recognized that some of them could sharpen the players’ strategic thinking, a skill useful in other walks of life not least of which was the military sphere. Indeed, the Greeks attributed the invention of such games to the hero Palamedes who was also credited with creating military strategy. In this view board gaming was more than an appropriate pursuit for heroes and, by extension, for the elites of the Greek world. And in games where dice were involved the element of chance was added to strategic skill which allowed the metaphor of “the roll of the dice” to be extended to Death’s irruption into the human sphere.
Though, as with all human pursuits the positive, heroic, associations of board games were not universally held, and dicing could meet with even greater disapproval. While clearly widely played, as the archaeological evidence shows, in certain ancient circles the value of board gaming could be contested. This lecture examines the many facets of ancient game boarding as they are preserved in the literary, iconographic and artefactual record in the Greek world.
This public lecture was delivered on Sunday 11 April, 2021 at the Chau Chak Wing Museum at the University of Sydney as part of the event Museum Kafenio 1: Game On. Greek games and how to play them co-hosted by the AAIA and the Greek Festival of Sydney, with the support of the Nicholas Anthony Aroney Trust. You can watch Dr Stavros Paspalas’ full lecture here:
Dr Stavros Paspalas is the Director of the Australian Archaeological Institute at Athens. His research interests include the Greek world’s links with Lydia and the Achaemenid Empire, the archaeology of the northern Aegean during the Archaic and Classical periods, and the Early Iron Age Aegean. He is involved in a number of field projects, notably in the Zagora Archaeological Project which he co-directs with Professor Margaret Miller and Associate Professor Lesley Beaumont, both of the University of Sydney. He worked for many years on the excavations at Torone and on the Australian Paliochora Kythera Archaeological Survey.